Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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7 Books I Wish I’d Read Sooner

If I’m being honest, the whole Keeping Up With The Penguins project is founded on the idea of reading all the books I wish I’d read sooner. This post could just be the full list of 109 books I’ve challenged myself to read, and we could all go home happy. Still, as I work my way through them, I realise there are a handful that, for one reason or another, I especially wish I’d come to earlier in life, books I should have read long before I finally got around to them. So, here’s my highlights reel of books I wish I’d read sooner.

7 Books I Wish I'd Read Sooner - Text Overlaid on Dark Image of Hourglass Half-Spent with Green Sand - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Now that I’ve read The Book Thief, I feel like I see it everywhere. Granted, there’s probably a little confirmation bias at play there, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. My Instagram and Pinterest feeds are filled with gushing, adoring reviews from (mostly) teenage fans. I think, for a lot of them, this is the first WWII story they’ve emotionally connected with, the first one to truly show them the human impact of military conflict. Had I read The Book Thief as a young teen, before encountering Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, I likely would have had the same reaction. I wish I’d read it then, before I engaged with numerous harrowing real-life stories of the Second World War. As it stands, with The Book Thief and historical WWII fiction in general, I’m a bit cynical and often find that for me they don’t stand up to the true accounts. Read my full review here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Long-time Keeper-Upperers are probably sick of hearing me talk about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but I don’t care: I’ll be recommending this book with my very last breath. I can’t believe I’d never even heard of it before beginning the KUWTP project, despite it having been shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. It’s a wonderful story of family, secrets, and humanity, that in my mind sets the standard for contemporary fiction. I dearly wish I’d read it sooner, so that I could have started recommending it sooner, and sold more people on it! I guess I’ll just have to do my best to make up for lost time… Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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I’ve had a long and fraught relationship with Pride And Prejudice. The first time I picked it up, I think I was in high-school, and I abandoned it about 30 pages in. Between then and now, I can recall at least five additional attempts, all of which ended much the same way. It’s only very recently that I’ve managed to finish the whole thing, and I have no idea why I put it off for so long, or why I struggled so much with it! It was wonderful! I really enjoyed it, and found the love story really comfortingly familiar, full of what we now recognise as archetypes of English literature. I wish I’d copped onto myself sooner and just forced myself to persist with it, because it has informed a lot of my reading and critical analysis ever since. Read my full review here.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Fahrenheit 451 is another one I wish I’d got to in high-school, back when I first started getting interest in politics, government, power, surveillance, and control. It probably would have felt like a revelation back then, especially if I’d read it alongside my now-all-time-favourite Nineteen Eighty-Four. I know a lot of teenagers are forced to read Fahrenheit 451 for English classes, but somehow I escaped that particular rite of passage, and as such I didn’t come to it until very recently. It really didn’t evoke any strong feelings from me, aside from a sense of let-down after hearing it hyped up for so long. I felt very similarly upon my first reading of Lord Of The Flies. Read my full review here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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My reason for this one is a little self-indulgent, but I couldn’t put this post together without including it (forgive me!): I dearly wish I’d read David Copperfield, or any other Dickens, while my grandfather was alive. He was a huge fan of Dickens, he worshipped every word the man wrote, and even though I wouldn’t have got as much out of it personally had I read it back then, I would have loved the opportunity to talk it over with him. We had many long, wonderful conversation about other books and literature in general, and even though he never outright pressured me to pick up anything from Dickens, I know he would have loved to share his thoughts with me. So, here’s my heartfelt suggestion for all of you: if an older person in your life has a favourite book, read it now so you can discuss it with them, and share that memory, before they pass on! Read my full review here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another book I shamelessly plug at any opportunity: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I wish I’d read it sooner so I could have brought it up in every god-awful conversation I’ve ever had about The Great Gatsby. I’ve listened to so many people opine about Fitzgerald’s supposed genius, and spent hours of my life I’ll never get back hearing all about how he definitively captured life in the Jazz Age. Ugh! Had I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sooner, I would have had a counterpoint ready to offer. It’s a far superior book, and as far as I’m concerned it should be required reading on at least the same scale as stinkin’ Gatsby. This is another one I’ll be recommending with my dying breath. Read my full review here.

The White Mouse by Nancy Wake

The White Mouse - Nancy Wake - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The White Mouse was a quiet little book, not one that many readers have heard of, but it’s the autobiography of a truly incredible woman. It lives in the shadow of a far longer, more detailed, more “literary” history of her life and exploits, written by Peter Fitzsimons, which is also a great read. But for me, nothing quite compares to reading someone’s story in their own words, even if they’re not a naturally talented writer. I wish I’d read The White Mouse while Nancy Wake was still alive, firstly so that she would have received a little royalty cheque from my purchase, but secondly so that I could have had the chance to lobby the Australian government on her behalf to pay her the pension I feel she was well and truly owed by our country. That said, I feel lucky to have read it at all. Read my full review here.

If You Like This, Then Try That: 10 Read-Alike Book Recommendations

Have you ever read a book so good you didn’t want it to end? Has it left you wondering what to read next? Allow me to introduce you to the world of read-alikes: book recommendations based on books you already know you love. The book blogging world is full of people suggesting read-alikes, so I thought today I’d try my hand at it. Some of these are a little obvious, I’ll grant you, but others I like to think are a bit different, suggestions you wouldn’t normally consider for yourself. Here are my ten read-alike book recommendations…

If You Like This Then Try That - 10 Read-Alike Book Recommendations - Text Overlaid on Image of Sunglasses Laying On Top Of Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you liked Paper Towns by John Green, then try… Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

John Green is a YA juggernaut, and I don’t know a single reader in that genre who hasn’t picked up at least one of his books. Rainbow Rowell is perhaps a lesser-known alternative, but if you liked Paper Towns, then Fangirl will probably be right up your alley. Fangirl is the story of Cath, a recent high-school graduate headed to university and trying to find her place in the world. She struggles with whether her passion for fanfiction is “legitimate”, but has to set her own anxieties aside when dealing with her family members’ mental health issues.

Read my full review for Paper Towns here, and for Fangirl here.

If you liked To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, then try… I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

To Kill A Mockingbird is beloved by millions of readers, young and old alike. Even though it deals with some really tough subject matter – violence, racism, and injustice – there’s a river of hope that runs throughout. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a coming-of-age autobiography that deals with many of these same issues in a similar setting, and with an equally optimistic promise – with inner strength (and a love of literature) you can overcome terrible hardship.

Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here, and my review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is coming soon!

If you liked The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins, then try… We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

It wasn’t long ago that you’d see the dark cover of The Girl On The Train everywhere you turned, and its presence only doubled with the release of the popular film adaptation. Alongside Gone Girl, it sparked a huge trend in thriller stories of violence and manipulation told by unreliable female narrators. Now, you might have heard that We Were Liars is a young-adult book and assumed it couldn’t possibly be as dark or gripping as Hawkins’ break-out novel, but check yourself! The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking back to The Girl On The Train and how similar I found them, so it’s worth giving it a try.

Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here, and We Were Liars here.

If you liked The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, then try… All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is one of those “obvious” pairings I was talking about in the beginning, but I’m still surprised how often I come across someone who has read one but not the other. If you read and loved The Book Thief when it first came out a decade ago (perhaps you were part of the teenage target market at the time), consider All The Light We Cannot See your level-up adult alternative. It, too, tells the story of a young girl in the midst of WWII, but it intertwines with the story of a young German orphan who finds himself playing a key role for the Nazis. Plus, Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 2015, so you know it’s got the literary chops.

Read my full review of The Book Thief here, and All The Light We Cannot See here.

If you liked The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, then try… Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Lovers of The Alchemist tend to be the type to seek out literature that will help them grow and improve. That makes Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance a must-read for them! Like Coelho’s book, it’s not self-help per se, but it’s a fascinating fictionalised autobiography that explores the Metaphysics of Quality. It’s powerful, it’s penetrating, and it will teach you a lot about how to live.

Read my full review of The Alchemist here, and my review of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is coming soon!

If you liked As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, then try… The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Even die-hard Faulkner fans have to admit that As I Lay Dying is a weird book. When I read it, I had to map out a little genealogical table for myself to keep all the different narrators straight! But weird as it may be, it’s also a beautiful depiction of life for a poor family living in the rural American South, as is The Grapes Of Wrath. Steinbeck’s prose is a lot more straightforward and accessible than Faulkner’s, but that doesn’t make it a simple book to read. In fact, it’s an emotional gut-punch that will stay with you long after you turn the final pages.

Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here (genealogical table included, if you think it would help you!), and The Grapes Of Wrath here.

If you liked The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams, then try… The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett

In my view, this is the most logical pairing of this post, despite the long-standing rivalry between science-fiction and fantasy readers. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a hilarious satirical romp through space, very similar in tone and approach to the adventures through the fantasy Discworld found in The Colour Of Magic. And, best of all, like Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s the first in a long series of books, so if you love it you’ll have plenty more to keep you going for a while!

Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here, and The Colour Of Magic here.

If you liked Emma by Jane Austen, then try… Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Austen is one of the most recognisable names in English literature, and Emma is often cited as her best and most-loved novel. Stella Gibbons, on the other hand, is a relative unknown, but I was delighted to discover that Cold Comfort Farm could more than hold its own. Like Emma, it’s a social satire, told through the eyes of a young woman, only in Gibbons’ story she goes to live with her impoverished relatives with a view to being their Mary Poppins slash Henry Higgins. The humour is a little less subtle, perhaps, and there’s less lovey-dovey business, but I’m sure even the most devoted Austen fans will find many hearty laughs and knowing nods in this one.

Read my full review of Emma here, and Cold Comfort Farm here.

If you liked The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, then try… Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

The Rosie Project, the story of eccentric Don Tillman’s unconventional quest for love and happiness, won the hearts of millions of readers around the world, despite his somewhat odd behaviours and his unique approach to managing relationships. If stories about people who see the world differently appeal to you, then you should definitely pick up Instructions For A Heatwave. I’m thinking specifically of the character Aoife, who has managed to build a successful life for herself in New York City while hiding a terrible secret…

Read my full review of The Rosie Project here, and stay tuned for my review of Instructions For A Heatwave.

If you liked In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, then try… Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

On paper, it might seem like Capote and Safran are worlds apart: different time periods, different religious backgrounds, different countries, different sexualities… and yet I love them both for very similar reasons, namely their irreverence and their talent for storytelling. In Cold Blood was a triumph, an absolute must-read for fans of true crime, and it revolutionised the genre. Decades later, Safran followed in Capote’s footsteps, travelling to the American South to investigate another murder, this one even more intriguing and fraught with danger. From him, we get Murder In Mississippi (US title: God’ll Cut You Down), the perfect contemporary complement.

Read my full review of In Cold Blood here, and keep your eyes peeled for my review of Murder In Mississippi.

Are you going to give any of these pairings a go? Please do, because I’d love to hear what you think! Leave your feedback in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

9 Classic Books Worth Reading

Reading the classics can be tough, there’s no doubt about that. Many of them are written with old and unfamiliar language conventions, there’s all kinds of cultural references that have since fallen from collective memory, and the content isn’t always that relatable. I think, though, that most people are scared of classic books for a different reason. They worry that they’re not “smart enough” or “well read enough” to understand or enjoy them. I know that’s how I felt before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. I was sure any classic book I tried to read would go right over my head. Now, having read a lot of the classics on my original reading list, I’ve changed my mind. I can guarantee that reading the classics won’t always be as difficult or as scary as you think. I posted earlier this year about how to read more classic books, but if you’re struggling to figure out where to start, here’s a list of nine classic books worth reading.

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Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte might have been the most duplicitous and judge-y of the Brontë sisters, but in my view she also wrote the most accessible books. Wuthering Heights, from her equally-revered sister Emily, was really quite complicated and dark and I struggled with it, but Jane Eyre was fantastic! There are no real language barriers to overcome, the characterisation was superb (in fact, Charlotte was once called “the first historian of the private consciousness”), and the story was quite straightforward. Of course, the leading man, Mr Rochester, is problematic AF and you do have to take off your feminist-ideals hat to enjoy the romance properly, but if you can manage that, you’ll find a lot to love in this classic book. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Arthur Conan Doyle is probably the only doctor in the history of the world who had to use writing as a side-hustle to earn some extra cash. That’s how he came to write The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a series of extremely popular mysteries featuring the character now considered to be the world’s most famous fictional detective. I love recommending this collection to people who are a bit time-poor or find themselves easily distracted while reading; the stories are short, Doyle’s economy of language was masterful, and they’re non-chronological, meaning they can be read in any order. Most of all, they’re extremely enjoyable and highly satisfying. If you like the BBC’s Sherlock series, you must give the original a go. Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

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Long time Keeper-Upperers are probably shocked to see Pride And Prejudice on this list. I don’t blame them: I dragged my feet for so long on this book. But when I finally sat myself down, and rolled up my sleeves, and dove in to Austen’s best-loved work, I found myself pleasantly surprised. It’s a great Austen for beginners, because the dialogue and language don’t feel too stilted, and the romance will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie. Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship has been adapted, interpreted, satirised, and re-written so many times, it’s basically an archetype at this point. Read my full review here.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think a lot of people are put off David Copperfield by its sheer size; most editions run to 1000+ pages, and my own copy had to be published in two volumes because it was too long to hold together as a single book. It’s probably not a good one to pick up if you’re not in the mood to commit to one story for a good long while. That said, Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child”, and I can see why. It’s a beautiful, clever, epic tale of a Victorian man’s life, styled as an autobiography, with something for everyone: action, adventure, mystery, romance, politics, and more. I said in my review that I “devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab”, and I think that sums up pretty well why I think it’s one of the best classic books worth reading. Read my full review here.

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is crucial – CRUCIAL! – that when you pick up a copy of Little Women for the very first time, you find an edition with a really good introduction that explains Louisa May Alcott’s life and politics for you before you begin. Her story of the four March sisters in Civil War-era New England is often written off as sentimental fluff, a “book for girls”, which is a damn shame. I think it’s largely because people don’t take the time to understand Alcott’s motivations for writing the book, the position she held in society and in her family, and the subtle ways in which she subverted the tropes of a “moral story for young women”. If an edition with a great introduction isn’t forthcoming, you can always start with my review, where I detail a lot of the aspects I found interesting. I highly recommend giving this one a go around Christmas time; the iconic opening scene will get you in the holiday spirit. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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I think most non-academic readers groan when they encounter a book written in dialect. When it’s done poorly, it makes reading the book a real chore. Luckily, Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn flows so naturally you won’t even notice the clever ways he manipulated language to depict the Southern drawl. Huck Finn is a confronting novel, at times, and certainly controversial, for many reasons: violence, racial epithets, white-saviour storylines, all of which have led to it being challenged and banned at various points in time. But it’s still a classic book worth reading! The characters of Huck and Jim jump off the page, and you won’t be able to pull yourself away from their adventures down the Mississippi River. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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Fine, I’ll concede: if you struggle with subtle stories, The Age Of Innocence might not be the one for you, but maybe you should give it a go anyway. I was constantly surprised reading Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; it seemed to move so slowly, and yet she could find a way to make an important point or a pithy social critique while describing a house or a garden bed. Her female characters in particular are beautifully complex and flawed, and I fell in love with the way that Wharton used them to make ever-relevant comments about the role of women in society. Plus, it’s the story of a social scandal on the scale of Brangelina; you’ll come out of this book on either Team Countess Olenska, or Team May Welland, I guarantee it. Read my full review here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of social critiques, The Grapes Of Wrath is eerily current. Save for a few technological advances, I would completely have believed (had I not seen the date on the inside cover) that this was a contemporary novel set pretty much in the present day. Its perspectives on capitalism, automation, climate change, class warfare, and workers’ rights are scarily relevant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. Plus, the story – especially its end (which I won’t spoil here, but I do in my review, be warned!) – is hauntingly beautiful, and the matriarch Ma Joad is now my favourite character in all of American literature. Read my full review here.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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To say I approached Crime And Punishment with trepidation would be a gross understatement. I was fully convinced (with no true factual basis, mind you) that the Russian classics were dense and dull, and I would be in for a rough time with Dostoyevsky’s tale of a young man who tries to commit a moral murder. I was – I’ll say it loud and proud – absolutely wrong. This book had me cackling with laughter the whole way through, and finding myself (worryingly) relating to the anxious axe-murderer. Make sure you pick up the David McDuff translation, as I did – I can’t attest to any of the others, but he did a bang-up job! Read my full review here.

Of course, all books are worth reading in some measure, but I think these classic books have something special to offer, especially if you’re just wading into that part of the literary world for the first time. Have I skipped over your favourite classic? Got any other classic books worth reading to suggest? Drop them in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

My Reading List Page Count: 109 Classic and Best Seller Books From Shortest to Longest

I’m becoming a bit obsessed with looking at my reading list for this project from different angles. I’ve created a bookish timeline to see what period I’m covering, and a world map to look at all the different places I’m travelling, through the magic of the written word. And here’s a peek behind the book blogger curtain for you: I can actually see what searches people use to find Keeping Up With The Penguins, and it would seem that a lot of you are curious about the page counts of classic and best seller books. So today, I’m going to arrange my entire TBR from longest to shortest by page count.

My Reading List Page Count - 109 Classic and Best Seller Books from Shortest to Longest - Text Overlaid on Image of Open Book on Grass and Leaves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(Note: these are the page lengths of the actual editions I own, so it might differ from what Wikipedia says or the copy you have at home.)

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: 138 pages
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: 150 pages
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood: 152 pages
Murphy by Samuel Beckett: 158 pages
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 160 pages
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 161 pages
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: 167 pages
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: 172 pages
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Dougals Adams: 180 pages
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 184 pages
Amongst Women by John MaGahern: 184 pages
The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame: 192 pages
The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene: 192 pages
Party Going by Henry Green: 192 pages

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet: 201 pages
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: 201 pages
An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro: 206 pages
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 208 pages
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner: 222 pages
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh: 222 pages
If I Stay by Gayle Forman: 224 pages
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: 224 pages
The White Mouse by Nancy Wake: 224 pages
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: 227 pages
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 227 pages
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger: 230 pages
The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do: 232 pages
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin: 232 pages
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: 233 pages
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: 234 pages
A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking: 241 pages
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos: 243 pages (*also contains But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which I also read.)
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: 247 pages
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: 248 pages
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: 250 pages

The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James: 272 pages (*also contains The Aspen Papers, which I definitely did not read. I’ve had my fill of Henry James.)
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth: 274 pages
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding: 285 pages
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe: 286 pages
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: 288 pages
The Call Of The Wild by Jack London: 288 pages (*also includes White Fang, which I didn’t read. Too much puppy torture!)
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: 292 pages
Still Alice by Lisa Genova: 293 pages
The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham: 296 pages
The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton: 301 pages
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 309 pages
On The Road by Jack Kerouac: 310 pages
A Passage To India by E.M. Forster: 312 pages
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: 314 pages
Wild by Cheryl Strayed: 315 pages
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins: 316 pages

Kim by Rudyard Kipling: 322 page
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: 323 pages
Yes Please by Amy Poehler: 329 pages
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: 331 pages
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: 334 pages
Paper Towns by John Green: 336 pages
Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller: 336 pages
The Heat Of The Day by Elizabeth Bowen: 336 pages
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: 336 pages
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: 336 pages
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: 343 pages
Girl Online by Zoe Sugg: 344 pages
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green: 352 pages
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: 354 pages
The Martian by Andy Weir: 369 pages
The Maze Runner by James Dashner: 371 pages
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan: 373 pages
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: 374 pages

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson: 384 pages
Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis: 394 pages
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen: 398 pages
Dracula by Bram Stoker: 400 pages
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: 406 pages
Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli: 412 pages
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck: 416 pages
She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir: 416 pages
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: 416 pages (*also includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I did read, too)
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge: 432 pages
American Sniper by Chris Kyle: 448 pages
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: 459 pages
The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan: 467 pages
Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos: 469 pages
Emma by Jane Austen: 474 pages
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey: 478 pages

Divergent by Veronica Roth: 489 pages
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson: 516 pages (*but this is an abridged edition, the full version is literally one of the longest books ever written.)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: 519 pages
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: 531 pages
The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow: 536 pages
The Golden Bowl by Henry James: 547 pages
The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett: 569 pages
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: 584 pages
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne: 588 pages
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: 590 pages
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: 596 pages
The Lake House by Kate Morton: 608 pages
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: 622 pages
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri: 656 pages
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 656 pages
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: 672 pages (*note: also contains other stories)

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: 672 pages
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: 687 pages
Ulysses by James Joyce: 719 pages
Moby Dick by Herman Melville: 720 pages
A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: 864 pages
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray: 883 pages
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: 1056 pages
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: 1057 pages

The strangest thing I noticed: page length has very little to do with how long a book feels. Mrs Dalloway felt like a much longer read than My Brilliant Friend, and yet the latter is nearly twice as long in page count. It also felt like a much longer read than The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, but in reality they’re about the same length. Weird, eh? Really, you can’t tell much from a book’s page count at all. Some of the classic books, which we all assume will be long and meaty, have the fewest pages, while some of the most-recent best-sellers are doorstops.

So, here’s my total (I know you’re all dying to know): accounting for a few pages of notes skipped here and there and a couple of combination editions where I didn’t read the second book, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me reading 40,700 pages. Not bad! And, of course, you can find links to every single review here (I update the list with the new one published each week). If you’re curious about how many pages are in your TBR, you can find page counts for most editions of most books on Goodreads (and you can friend me while you’re there!). How many pages is your current read? Add to the list in the comments below (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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July 2020

The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World by Laura Imai Messia

The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World - Laura Imai Messia - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Each year, thousands of people undertake a pilgrimage to a garden in the north-east of Japan, one of the areas worst affected by the 2011 tsunami. There stands a phone box, the Wind Phone, that anyone is free to use to speak to loved ones who are lost or missing. It sounds like fiction, but it’s true – I first heard about it on This American Life. Laura Imai Messia is an Italian author who has been living in Japan for the past fifteen years, and she has taken this remarkable true story and used it as the basis of her new novel, The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World (translated into English by Lucy Rand). The wonderful team at Bonnier (via Allen and Unwin) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Yui lost her mother and daughter in the tsunami. When she seeks out the Wind Phone, hoping for answers and strength, she meets Takeshi, who is doing the same. He is a bereaved widower, whose young daughter stopped speaking altogether in the wake of their loss. The story unfolds around Yui and Takeshi as they return to the phone box, again and again. It’s a beautiful premise, but for me the prose fell a little short. I guess I was expecting something like a blend of Sayaka Murata and Elena Ferrante, but the tone of The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World is closer to Cecilia Ahern or Marian Keyes. It’s a fine story of losing and finding family, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite live up to the heart-wrenching stories of the real-life Wind Phone.

Get The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World here.

A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu

A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing - Jessie Tu - Keeping Up With The Peguins

Child prodigies are cute, but have you ever wondered what happens to them when they grow up? The story of one such prodigy unfolds in A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing, the debut novel of Australian writer Jessie Tu. It’s not a stretch to imagine that at least some aspects of this story are autobiographical, as Tu herself trained for fifteen years as a classical violinist. Still, I hope from her sake that her story isn’t too close to that of her central character… The fine folks at Allen and Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Jena’s career as a violinist came to a screeching halt as a teenager, after a public humiliation that “blew up the lives” of her, her family, and her teacher. She has retreated from the spotlight, playing as part of an orchestra, and uses self-destructive sex to fill the void (heads up: it’s not one for the prudish, Jena is… unabashed). A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing interrogates female desire, relationships, and power – it’s Ottessa Moshfegh meets Lisa Taddeo.

June 2020

The Safe Place by Anna Downes

The Safe Place - Anna Downes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Emily Proudman is down on her luck. Her acting career amounts to no more than a couple of bit-parts in commercials. Her temp job as a receptionist barely covers the rent, and then she’s fired from that, too. Then, her now-former boss – enigmatic and charismatic Scott Denny – offers her the opportunity of a lifetime, working as a live-in housekeeper-slash-personal-assistant for his wife and six-year-old daughter on their secluded but luxurious French estate. That’s the premise of The Safe Place, the debut novel of former-actress and former-live-in-housekeeper herself Anna Downes, and the fine folks at Affirm Press were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Obviously, the offer is too good to be true. Creepy house, creepy kid, a million miles away from anyone – The Safe Place has all the classic motifs of a gothic thriller. It was all very reminiscent of Ruth Ware’s The Turn of The Key, which I quite enjoyed. Unfortunately, some of the psychological elements in this one just seemed a step beyond believable, and I stumbled into a couple of plot-holes (that I won’t reveal because spoilers, suffice to say they bugged me). The Safe Place is an easy read that will keep your interest, but it unfortunately falls short of the high bar for women-centered domestic thrillers set by writers like Liane Moriarty.

Get The Safe Place here.

Paris Match by John Von Sothern

Paris Match - John Von Sothen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The American-man-abroad (and specifically the American-man-in-Paris) memoir is well-trod ground, to say the least. John Von Sothern enters a pretty saturated market with his new book, Paris Match. Still, even though David Sedaris and his ilk have set the bar pretty damn high, I couldn’t resist giving this one a go. The New York Times Book Review called it the “Holiday Book Of The Year”, after all, and I always get a kick out of tales of culture-shock and things lost in translation. The wonderful team at Profile Books (via Allen and Unwin) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

It all begins with Von Sothern falling in love with a French waitress. With a bun in the oven, marriage on the horizon (“Bah, we can always get divorced!” she says, to warm his cold feet), and the events of September 11 hanging over their heads, they move to her native Paris to begin their new lives. He struggles to assimilate, but he turns those struggles into (mostly) hilarious anecdotes and insights for our enjoyment. The chapter that had me in stitches – knee-slapping, snort-laughing stitches – was “Wesh We Can”, about his fumbling attempts to make himself understood in French, absolutely the highlight of this generally charming book.

You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken

You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here - Frances Macken - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know that old saying, “you can’t choose your family”? Well, sometimes you don’t get to choose your friends, either. Katie grows up in the (fictional) Irish town of Glenbruff, where she has no choice but to become friends with the glamorous troublemaker Evelyn, and the wet blanket Maeve. They dream of escaping their small-town life someday, but in the meantime (as the title suggests) You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here. When Pamela – the “city girl” – moves to Glenbruff, the natural order of things is disrupted and this coming-of-age novel takes a dark turn… The fine folks at Oneworld (via Bloomsbury) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here explores the intricacies and intimacies of intense female friendship against the backdrop of the Emerald Isle in the ’90s. Macken nails the traditional Irish blend of humour and horror, in short, sharp chapters that keep the story moving quickly. As a narrator, Katie is intriguing, and full of astute insights. This admirable debut lands right at the intersection of the Netflix series Derry Girls, and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (both of which I love).

Get You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here here.

The Codes Of Love by Hannah Persaud

The Codes Of Love - Hannnah Persaud - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It is always glorious to encounter a book about a marriage that deftly side-steps all the “how-we-met” or “how-we-killed-each-other” tropes. The Codes Of Love is an intimate, perhaps even voyeuristic, window to the ever-tantalising spectacle of an open marriage. When Ryan proposed to Emily, he envisaged for them a traditional monogamous union, but she insisted on a series of rules. One of them marks the beginning of each chapter: “Rules of an open marriage #12: Have no secrets from one another”, “Rules of an open marriage #14: Never treat each other like second-class partners”. Reader, it’s no spoiler to say that both Ryan and Emily break these rules, and that’s what makes this a story. The fine folks at Muswell Press, via Bloomsbury, were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The Codes Of Love lands somewhere between Sally Rooney’s perennially popular Normal People and Simone de Beauvoir’s oft-overlooked She Came To Stay. When Ada sweeps into Ryan and Emily’s lives, she leaves a wake of deception and duplicity in her path. The timeline does jump back and forth a bit as events unfold, but the story takes place over such a short period (and the events are so closely interwoven) that it never feels disorienting. Steering clear of melodramatics and cliches, but always passionate, Pernaud delivers what she promises: “a page turning portrait of a contemporary marriage”.

May 2020

Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs

Fathoms - Rebecca Giggs - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever seen a whale? Face-to-face with the world’s largest creature, sadly beached on the coast of Western Australia, Rebecca Giggs was captivated. The dying humpback “inspired wonderment, a dilation of the ordinary”. She went on to write Fathoms, an extended meditation on whales and their place in history, ecology, economy, and mythology. The wonderful team at Scribe were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Much of our general knowledge about the whale is derived from its symbolic significance for the burgeoning green movement of the ’70s – we’ve all heard the catch-cry, seen the bumper stickers, “Save the whales!”. Giggs takes us back much further than that, to when the whale’s evolutionary ancestors walked on land. She brings us further forward too, to a world where the whale faces more threats than ever before. Plastics, sound pollution, even supposedly-responsible eco-tourism – all could be death knells for the whale. Fathoms is a meticulously researched book, rich in detail and emphatic in tone, one that draws our attention to something perhaps even larger than the whale: the legacy of humanity’s impact on the sea and skies.

Get Fathoms here.

The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay

The Animals In That Country - Laura Jean McKay - Book Laid on a Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From my review on Primer: Few authors would consider themselves lucky to be releasing a book in the midst of a global pandemic. Laura Jean McKay might be the only exception. Her new novel The Animals In That Country revolves around the outbreak of a highly infections sub-type of influenza that threatens the very fabric of society – sound familiar?

It’s an eerily prescient premise, right down to the conspiracy theories that proliferate on Facebook and the government ads that encourage people to “keep calm and stay indoors”. McKay is a masterful storyteller, and her talent truly shines in this story of family and belonging.

Get The Animals In That Country here.

Breasts And Eggs by Meiko Kawakami

Breasts And Eggs - Meiko Kawakami - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s not every day you come across a book recommended by Haruki Murakami – in fact, I think this might be the first I’ve ever read. He called it “breathtaking”, and has described Meiko Kawakami as his “favourite novelist”. That’s some high praise, right there! It turns out Kawakami is already quite a superstar in Japan – as a singer, blogger, and now award-winning literary writer – but Breasts And Eggs is the first of her books to be translated into English (by Sam Bett and David Boyd, #NameTheTranslator!). It was a true pleasure to receive this copy from Pan Macmillan Australia for review!

The story is told in two parts, each of which could stand alone but are brought together by their narrator (Natsuko, a writer living in Tokyo) and themes (womanhood, motherhood, and self-discovery). In Book One, Natsuko’s sister comes to town to get a breast enhancement surgery consultation, with her selectively mute daughter in tow. In Book Two, ten years later, Natsuko is forced to confront her ambivalence about sex, whether to have children, and her relationships with the other women in her life. What really shines is Kawakami’s eye for the mundane – the grocery shopping, the weather, the features of a flat – and her razor-sharp insight into the pressures women face, in Japan and everywhere. It would seem that some of the nuances of Osaka dialect are lost in translation, but Breasts And Eggs remains a riveting and revelatory read.

Get Breasts And Eggs here.

Mammoth by Chris Flynn

Mammoth - Chris Flynn - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Having just read his new release, Mammoth (sent to me by the fine folks at UQP), I’d imagine author Chris Flynn gets one question more than any other: “Mate, how the heck do you even come up with something like that?”. The premise is bold, ludicrous even: thirteen thousand odd years of natural history narrated by the fossil of an American mammoth (Mammut americanum, though he goes by Mammut). It sounds like it couldn’t work, it shouldn’t work… but it does.

On the night before the New York Natural History Auction in 2007, Mammut tells the (startlingly accurate) story of his life, death, and resurrection as a fossil. He’s been bandied about across the world for centuries by humans, “hominids”, to their own (often nefarious) ends. Through this unique perspective, Flynn is able to draw our attention to the entrenched racism and sexism that has underwritten our understanding of natural history, not to mention the inherent problems of turning nature into a spectacle in the name of capitalism, but miraculously the tone is never preachy or demoralising. In fact, this is a warm, charming, disarming, and funny book. Its critiques are perfectly balanced with revelations that made me snort-laugh (such as “Egyptians have a jizz god!”, courtesy of a fossilised penguin who is, in turn, called a “deformed duck” by the mummy with whom he shares a display). Mammoth reads as if Bill Bryson turned his hand to writing fiction. It’s one for the eco-conscious and sentimental among us, who are (clearly) in dire need of a good laugh and a bit of optimism about the state of the world.

Get Mammoth here.

Come by Rita Therese

Come - Rita Therese - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Our collective curiosity about sex work is probably only (very) slightly younger than the profession itself (being, as it is, the world’s oldest and all). However, it’s only recently that we’re seeing spaces open up for sex workers to tell their own stories, in their own words. That’s the basis of Come by Rita Therese, a memoir of her life as herself, and as Gia, the topless waitress, stripper, erotic masseuse, and escort. The wonderful team at Allen And Unwin are bringing it to the world, and they were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Therese has split her story into three broad sections: Sex, Love, and Death (which, in itself, should give you a pretty good indication of the tone of the book). It’s only vaguely linear – more like a series of vignettes cobbled together into a rough timeline, but flitting back and forth as she excavates the agonies and the ecstasies of her life. She is frank and forthright about her experiences of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll (okay, fine, more the former two than the latter), and she takes a really admirable warts-and-all approach to sharing her story. This is one for fans of Kate Holden’s In My Skin, or Belle de Jour’s Intimate Adventures Of A London Call Girl.

Throat by Ellen Van Neerven

Throat - Ellen Van Neerven - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Throat is the sharp and stunning second poetry collection from award-winning Mununjali Yugambeh author Ellen Van Neerven. It throbs with recollections of country, family, love, and anger. The fine folks at University of Queensland Press published it as part of Van Neerven’s receipt of the 2020 UQP Quentin Bryce Award, and they were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Van Neerven’s poetry is at times sarcastic and satirical, at others simply searing, but always in the most deeply satisfying way. They never shy away from the political (“This country is a haunted house, governments still playing cat chasing marsupial mouse”) or the personal (“The Only Blak Queer In The World” is a heart-wrenching insight into the isolation of intersectionality, and the search for community and solace). The cities that ate Australia is particular perfection, as is Politicians having long showers on stolen land. I devoured Throat in a single sitting, and I’m sure I will savour it again over many more.

Tender Is The Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica

Tender Is The Flesh - Augustina. Bazterrica - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not going to lie: I copped a few surprised looks when I told people that I was reading (and captivated by) a book about cannibalism. I mean, in my defense, it’s a prizewinning Argentinian dystopia about the power of language, the bounds of humanity, and a searing critique of our exploitation of the earth… but still, they got all hung up on the cannibalism part. Weird, eh? Anyway, it’s Tender Is The Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica, translated into English by Sarah Moses and published by the wonderful team at Pushkin Press.

It has an eerily pertinent premise: a virus has ripped through the entire animal population, wild and domestic, making all meat entirely poisonous to humans. Companies and governments conspire to legalise and legitimise the breeding and consumption of humans for food – or, in the post-Transition parlance, “heads” for “special meat”. The protagonist is Marcos, a bigwig at a factory that raises and slaughters humans for butchers, tanneries, laboratories, and (hold onto your hat) a game reserve. Bazterrica never goes easy on the reader, not for one second – every aspect of her imagined world is described in stomach-churning detail, and every parallel to the current practices of factory farming and sanctioned animal abuses is well and truly hammered home. In fact, it could be read as something like a vegan rallying cry – and it’s up to the reader whether that resonates or rankles. Naturally, a trigger warning, but an extra-special one for folks like me who can handle all the human flesh consumption just fine but are absolutely destroyed when bad things happen to dogs in books (so many bad things, so many tears!). Tender Is The Flesh is a brilliant book, with much to say… just maybe don’t read it right before dinner.

Get Tender Is The Flesh here.

April 2020

The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

The Recovery of Rose Gold - Stephanie Wrobel - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stephanie Wrobel’s debut novel, The Recovery of Rose Gold (called Darling Rose Gold in other regions), explores the twisted co-dependent relationship between mother and daughter that develops as a result of the mother’s Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Penguin Books Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review. It has all the hallmarks of a pacy thriller, but I tell you what, it’s refreshing to read one that doesn’t revolve around dead bodies and bloodshed. The Recovery of Rose Gold isn’t a “whodunnit”, but a sinister cat-and-mouse game of power and control.

MSBP is a relatively rare psychological condition, and as a premise for a thriller it’s fresh and fascinating. The story begins where most thrillers might end: with the mother, Patty, being released from prison and her daughter/victim, Rose Gold, accepting her back into her life in an apparent attempt at reconciliation. The story is told through their alternating perspectives, with Patty depicting the events of the present, and Rose Gold’s account of the past – the two, naturally, meet at the end when “all is revealed”. I would caution readers against reading this as a realistic portrayal of MSBP (the attempt at drawing linear causation for Patty’s condition is over-simplified at best), nor should it be read as a direct fictionalisation of the real-life case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard. Still, it’s satisfying and compelling without being hackneyed or overwrought.

Get The Recovery Of Rose Gold here.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

Hurricane Season - Fernanda Melchor - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

After the American Dirt controversy earlier this year, I was eager to pick up more #ownvoices Central and South American literature. That’s why I was overjoyed to receive this copy of Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (translated into English by Sophie Hughes) from the wonderful team at Text Publishing. Recently short-listed for the 2020 International Booker Prize, this murder mystery (of sorts) set in rural Mexico is actually inspired by real events, an honest-to-goodness witch hunt, near Melchor’s hometown. It all begins when a group of children discover a decomposing body in a canal, that of the local Witch, and the story unfolds through the perspectives of bystanders, accomplices, and (of course) the perpetrators…

That sounds benign enough, but I’ve got to tell you: this is a HEAVY read, more horror than whodunnit. Trigger warnings for literally everything you can imagine. It has these beautiful long lyrical sentences that lure you in, but the visceral, carnal, brutal nature of the events it depicts are not for the faint of heart. This is a challenging and confronting read that will certainly stand the test of time – if you need a “light” read right now, though, it might be best to save Hurricane Season for later.

Get Hurricane Season here.

Mazel Tov by J.S. Margot

Mazel Tov - JS Margot - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In 1987, J.S. Margot was a mini-skirted university student, and she took a job as a tutor to a family with four children. There would be nothing remarkable about that story, except that the Schneider family were Orthodox Jews, and their household was a world entirely unfamiliar to her. Her memoir, Mazel Tov, traces the strange nature of their relationship, right through to the present day. Though Margot has previously written five novels, this is her first book of non-fiction, and the first to be translated into English. The translation was undertaken by Jane Hedley-Prôle, and the fine folks at Pushkin Press were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

I was expecting a cutesy strange bedfellows read, full of funny anecdotes about culture clash and sweet moments of revelation. Mazel Tov is nothing like that. It’s a reserved, but provocative, account of family and religion, and also language, politics, marriage, history, and oppression. The children of the Schneider family are curious, but pious, and in many ways end up teaching Margot more than she teaches them.

March 2020

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

When We Were Vikings - Andrew David MacDonald - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zelda is 21 years old. She lives with her older brother, Gert, and she’s obsessed with Vikings. Not the TV show, or the football team – literal Vikings, the Norse people who kicked around Northern Europe up until the 11th century. Zelda’s a little bit different, and she knows that, but she’s figured out how to get by in the world. Then, she figures out that Gert has made friends with some not-nice people who are getting him to do not-nice things for money… and she decides to take matters into her own hands, the way her Viking heroes would. Simon & Schuster were kind enough to send me a copy of When We Were Vikings for review.

Despite dealing with some very dark themes (trigger warnings for violence, abuse, and rape), this is a surprisingly charming and endearing novel from debut author Andrew David MacDonald. Zelda’s differences make her awkward and difficult to deal with at times, but she’s also earnest, enthusiastic, and caring. I liked that MacDonald told her story tenderly, without making Zelda a spectacle or an object of pity. When We Were Vikings is never condescending, always compassionate, and achieves the perfect balance between drama and humour. This is a must-read if you’re in the mood for an uplifting story about what to do when life deals you a shitty hand.

Get When We Were Vikings here.

Going Dark by Julia Ebner

Going Dark - Julia Ebner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

By day, Julia Ebner is a journalist and a research fellow, working at a counter-extremism think tank that monitors the activity of radical groups right across the spectrum. You’d think that after a long day at work, she’d want to come home, put her feet up, and binge-watch ’90s sit-coms. But, no: Ebner spends her spare time going undercover in the online world of extremists, taking on secret identities to gain access to the darkest corners of the internet that you can imagine. She shares her experiences in Going Dark, and Bloomsbury was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The question nagging at the back of the mind of anyone who picks up a book like this is “could I become radicalised online and not even know it?”. The scary answer is: probably. We have all felt as lonely and hard-done-by as the people that Ebner finds in groups for trad-wives, in-cels, jihadists, and white supremacists. She goes above and beyond to provide this multi-dimensional view of online extremism, but shows remarkable restraint in not sensationalising the subject matter. Everyone should read Going Dark, if for no other reason than what you don’t know can hurt you.

Get Going Dark here.

the lactic acid in the calves of your despair by Ali Whitelock

the lactic acid in the calves of your despair - Ali Whitelock - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It will come as no surprise that Ali Whitelock’s follow up to and my heart crumples like a coke can is every bit as glorious, gory, witty, and wonderful as you hoped it would be (and then some). I never cease to be amazed by this poet’s incredible talent to tickle, tantalise, delight, and devastate. Personal favourite from this collection has to be NOTES from the six week course entitled: ‘a beginner’s guide to writing poetry’, but an honourable mention must go to if you have no eyes where do the tears go?, and (of course) the poem that became a viral sensation during the Australian bush fires earlier this year, this is coal don’t be afraid. Ali Whitelock continues to give ’em hell, and it’s an honour to watch her do it.

Get the lactic acid in the calves of your despair here.

The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue

The Temple House Vanishing - Rachel Donohue - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Twenty-five years ago, a teenage student of Temple House vanished, along with her enigmatic and charming art teacher. In the (roughly) present day, a journalist with a childhood connection to the girl decides to investigate. She uncovers multiple stories of unrequited love, artistic passion, obsession, fantasy, and betrayal. That’s the premise of The Temple House Vanishing, the debut novel from Irish writer Rachel Donohue. The fine folks at Corvus (via Allen & Unwin) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

It might sound like your standard girl-goes-missing mystery/thriller, but Donohue manages to use a well-worn plot to interrogate all manner of very literary themes: class, religion, jealousy. I was particularly taken with the way she presented the ramifications of our collective obsession with true crime. The Temple House Vanishing starts with a bang (major trigger warning), then simmers, until it boils over once again in a dramatic conclusion. It’s a must read for fans of Picnic At Hanging Rock, or The Secret History.

Get The Temple House Vanishing here.

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

The Great Pretender - Susannah Cahalan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How can we distinguish sanity from insanity? It’s a personal question for Susannah Cahalan, who was destined for a psychiatric institution before a doctor corrected her misdiagnosis and saved her life. It was also the life’s work of a psychology professor, David Rosenhan, who published an explosive study back in the 1970s. He set out to prove just how little we know about how to diagnose and treat mental illness, by having eight “sane” people committed and testing the flawed and arbitrary system of psychiatric diagnosis first-hand. That study had huge ramifications for the provision of mental health treatment, right through to the present day… but can we trust its findings?

Now, don’t mistake The Great Pretender for a anti-psychiatry conspiracy-theorist beat-up. In fact, it is a clear-eyed examination of a turning point in the history of mental health care, in the style of Susan Orlean or Jon Ronson. Cahalan has done the legwork, chasing shadows and ghosts through the annals of the asylums, trying to establish the veracity of Rosenhan’s claims. This is a must-read for anyone affected by mental illness (which, as we know, is pretty much everyone… isn’t it?).

Get The Great Pretender here.

The Love That Remains by Susan Francis

The Love That Remains - Susan Francis - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Susan Francis’ self-declared “obsession” with writing about the truth began with her search for her biological parents. She was privately adopted as an infant, and with her adoptive mother declining in late-stage Alzheimer’s, she went looking for answers about her past. Along the way, she found Wayne, the love of her life. Don’t make any snap judgements or assumptions, though: the story that unfolds in The Love That Remains is not the one that you’d expect. The fine folks at Allen And Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

These events – finding and meeting her birth parents (“Finding My Past”), and finding and meeting Wayne (“Finding Love”) – unfold in the first two parts of the book. The third part (“Finding Myself”), is something different entirely. In it, Francis discovers new truths that challenge everything she thought she knew about the man she married. She’s forced to confront uncomfortable questions: how well can we ever really know a person? Where are love’s bounds? Should we seek out our past to find peace, or focus on the present? The Love That Remains will be a great late-summer read for any fan of Liz Gilbert’s memoirs, with an interest in the big Ls (love, loss, and lies).

Get The Love That Remains here.

February 2020

Fauna by Donna Mazza

Fauna - Donna Mazza - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Fauna is perhaps best classified as “eco-gothic speculative fiction”, but that’s a bit of a tongue twister. It falls somewhere between feminist dystopias, like The Handmaid’s Tale, and contemporary Australian climate fiction, like Dyschronia. In it, Donna Mazza imagines a too-near speculative future where a company, Lifeblood(R), offers huge incentives for women to join an experimental genetics program splicing non-human DNA into embryos for in-vitro fertilisation. My thanks to Allen & Unwin for this review copy!

I can’t tell you too much about the plot of Fauna, because – as is the way with speculative novels – most of the impact comes from the slow unveiling of the truth. What I will say is that it grapples with big themes (the nature of personhood, motherhood, grief, yearning, and reckoning with one’s deal with the devil), and it will surely spark a lot of debate at book club!

I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

I Choose Elena - Lucia Osborne-Crowley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every book lover I know, at some time or another, has sought solace in a book. I Choose Elena, a long-form literary essay from Lucia Osborne-Crowley, explores that impulse at its very extreme. For over a decade, Osborne-Crowley suffered horrific, debilitating symptoms stemming back to a sexual assault in her teens. Now, she expands upon her struggle to come to a place where she could choose what defines her: the actions of a violent man, the illness of her body, or the joy and wonder she found in the works of writers like Elena Ferrante. As the title might suggest, she chooses Elena. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

You don’t need to be familiar with Ferrante (or any other of the dozens of writers Osborne-Crowley references) to find yourself deeply immersed and irrevocably moved by this story. It’s not often that a book will bring me to tears, even less so a literary essay, but this one did (more than once): tears of anguish, tears of fury, tears of gratitude. I Choose Elena is a must-read for fans of Fiona Wright, Gabrielle Jackson, and Bri Lee.

Get I Choose Elena here.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

The Bass Rock - Evie Wyld - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Evie Wyld’s new novel, The Bass Rock, stretches across centuries to examine the various forms of violence visited upon women by men. There are three protagonists: Sarah, in the 1700s, accused of being a witch and forced to flee into the woods; Ruth, navigating a new home, a new husband, and a new family in the wake of WWII; and Viv, in the present day, forced to reckon with the weight of inter-generational trauma and dysfunction. In their shared setting, the west coast of Scotland, their connections emerge gradually and deftly, like the weaving of a spider’s web. The fine folks at Penguin (Vintage Books) Australia were kind enough to send me this copy for review.

It’s hardly an easy read, disturbing at times, in line with Wyld’s comment that she “writes around things that scare her”. The shifts in perspective are disorienting by design, and each scene is painted so vividly that one can practically smell the salty sea air. Unsettling, uncanny, and unforgiving, there is an eerie timelessness to this story that will stick with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

Get The Bass Rock here.

Jane In Love by Rebecca Givney

Jane In Love - Rebecca Givney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A romantic comedy for book lovers, and just in time for Valentine’s Day! Imagine that Jane Austen travelled through time to the present day, and fell in love. Would she stay, knowing that choosing love meant erasing herself from literary history? Or would she go back, knowing that it meant missing her chance at a happily-ever-after? That’s the premise of Jane In Love, the debut novel of Sydney screenwriter and filmmaker Rebecca Givney. The fine folks at Penguin Books Australia were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

This probably isn’t one for the Austen purists. I mean, I’m only a casual fan, and even I was a bit perturbed by Austen as the boy-crazy love-hearts-for-eyes type of heroine, and also by the relative absence of her sister, Cassandra, from the narrative (given her importance in Austen’s “real” life). Still, this was a delightful, warm, and easy read that seamlessly merged the 19th and 21st centuries – definitely a great bookish gift for your historical-fiction-loving Valentine.

Get Jane In Love here.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A blurb that promises a book “revolutionises” a genre, especially one as saturated as memoir, seems quite literally unbelievable. But I’m here to tell you the truth: Carmen Maria Machado has done it with In The Dream House. It is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, defiant, heartfelt, multi-dimensional account of her formative – and abusive – love affair with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. I am extremely grateful to the fine folks at Serpent’s Tail and Allen & Unwin for sending me this copy to review.

This is a Rubik’s cube of a book, examining the subject from every possible angle, twisting and turning upon itself until all the edges line up. Some of the chapters are fragments, some are longer recollections, some mine the depths of pop culture and literature and art and critical theory in search of representation. I gulped this book down greedily, like a strong drink at the end of a particularly hard day.

Get In The Dream House here.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt - Jeanine Cummins - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From my review on Primer: American Dirt is already shaping up to be the most divisive book of the year. On the one hand, it’s been heralded as The Grapes Of Wrath for the 21st century. It’s Oprah’s first book club pick of 2020, and Ann Patchett has said she’ll “never stop thinking about it”. On the other hand, critics have derided the author, Jeanine Cummins, for misrepresenting cultures and experiences that are not her own, and proliferating “trauma porn”. So, which is it? A masterpiece, or a mangled mess of misappropriation?

Get American Dirt here.

January 2020

Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies In A Small Town - Diane Chamberlain - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong (it’s rare, but it does happen). I took one look at Big Lies In A Small Town and thought “ugh, another domestic thriller pot boiler, snooze”. Lies are the new Girls in book titles, after all. But, once again, there’s something to that whole not-judging-a-book-by-its-cover thing. Many thanks to the fine folks at Macmillan for sending me this copy for review, and inadvertently keeping me humble…

The story centers around a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. Big Lies In A Small Town is fictional, but the town of Edenton and the themes Chamberlain explores (race, privilege, and opportunity) are very real. Don’t skip past this one at the airport – it’s worth it!

Pssst: Christine at The Uncorked Librarian featured my write-up of Big Lies In A Small Town in her fantastic round-up of books set in North Carolina here!

Get Big Lies In A Small Town here.

Shark Arm by Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher

Shark Arm - Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The first line of Shark Arm sets it up beautifully: “On 25 April 1935, a 4.4 metre tiger shark – caught one week earlier off the coast of New South Wales – horrified onlookers at a Sydney aquarium when it vomited up a human arm.” This is one of the most bizarre and unlikely true crime stories in recorded Australian history, and this new book turns every stone in an attempt to get to the truth of the decades-old cold case. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The “shark arm”, as it obviously became known, led police down a rabbit hole of smuggling, insurance fraud, and – not one, but two – grisly murders. Though it’s presented in classic true crime fashion, complete with glossy photograph inserts, Shark Arm is the perfect read for Aussie history buffs, particularly those with a keen interest in law enforcement bungles.

Get Shark Arm here.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such A Fun Age - Kiley Reid - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Such A Fun Age is the debut novel from American author Kiley Reid. It might look like a sweet summer read, but underneath lurks a serious critique of race, class, and good intentions. The fine folks at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Emira is a young woman still struggling to find her feet. As she stumbles through her twenties, she makes ends meet with a baby-sitting job, employed by the feminist advocate and “personal brand” Alix. One night, at a supermarket, Emira is pulled up by security, suspected of kidnapping the young (white) child in her charge. The whole incident is filmed by a witness, Kelley, but he swears to Emira that he’ll never release the footage. As love blooms between Emira and Kelley, she discovers that he and Alix are connected in a way she never could have predicted. Each has their own account of their history, and their own opinions about what’s best for Emira’s future…

Get Such A Fun Age here.

Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bunny lives in New York. She’s 43 years old. She’s a writer. She’s a middle child. She’s married to a zoologist, named Albie. She has a cat named Jeffery. She also has depression. Rabbits For Food is split into two parts: the events that lead up to her breakdown on New Year’s Eve 2008, and her experiences in the psych ward of a prestigious mental hospital after the fact. The fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me this edition from Serpent’s Tail for review.

Bunny is flawed, no doubt about it, but she is also wry, sarcastic, and extremely endearing. I’m almost certain I’ve already found one of my best reads of the year. Before I was halfway through Rabbits For Food, I knew I wanted to press it into the hands of all of my friends. If you have a dark sense of humour, and appreciate searing insight into the ridiculousness of social niceties, this is the book for you.

Get Rabbits For Food here.

Want even MORE ? Check out my reviews of the best book releases of 2019 here.

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